YOU HAVE A ROOMMATE, the matron of the dorm announced, unnecessarily authoritative, I thought, through her thick grandma eyeglasses delicately perched on her dark and flat Ilocano nose. I didn’t like the tone of her voice, much less the content of what she said, as I had applied for a single room. But her announcement had a ring of irreversibility about it, as though no explanation needed to be asked, and should it be asked, her answer was to prevail.
No problem, I said.
I would have wanted a room exclusive to myself that summer, but I was staying for only five weeks or so. It was going to be my last academic assignment, a six-unit summer load at the College, not a bad way to spend my last summer in Baguio before I plunge into another academic venture: availing of a fellowship for a doctorate program in psychology.
It was a rectangular room and everything in it followed the rectangular shape: two bunk beds touching each other’s ends, running parallel to the length of the wall, and the writing table with built-in shelves running parallel to the beds, which enabled us to hop into the table from our beds with only a few steps of our slippered feet.
She came on the second day, when I had set up all my things, everything contained in my two suitcases: books, clothes (an assortment of pants, tee-shirts, scarves, pullovers, jackets) radio/cassette recorder and tapes. I had chosen my bed (I didn’t give her the option to choose, first come, first crack at choices, I thought) – the one near the window overlooking the yard. I was a window person, given a choice in any locale – airplane, hotel room, restaurant – I would opt for a place near a window, where I could look out, where there was always a view, in this case, the view was of pine trees rustling, sashaying to the sound of the cold wind.
Her name was Noemi. The name struck me as biblical, the moment she said it, and when I asked, she said it was. And she smiled, seemingly proud of the fact. She had been with the Natural Sciences Department for the past two semesters, after lecturing stints at various downtown colleges in Metro Manila right after getting a degree in chemistry in Diliman.
“We’ve never met,” I said, smiling.
But then, I belonged to another department and went to the College only for my classes, having avoided committee work and irregularly attending assembly meetings. Frankly, I was a perfect candidate for non-tenureship. It was a miracle that I was recommended for a doctoral fellowship after two years of full-time teaching. Probably the student evaluation.
A lot of things seemed to be wrong with her eyes. Her eyeglasses were so thick – she said she had extreme myopia and she was astigmatic too. I did not know if it was connected with it, but she had a tendency to wink, or it must be more of a muscle tic in the region of her eyes. Which made it quite difficult for me talking to her, I mean focusing on her, on her face. I noticed, too, that on her part, she seemed to find it difficult to look at me, to focus on my face. So, she seemed to be always talking to somebody else, and not me. Except that there were only the two of us.
Straight, shoulder-length hair framed her fair oval face which seemed to be in a perpetual state of oiliness. Fresh pimples bursting out of craters of drying acne flakes created a pinkish blush on her complexion.
She was always wearing a dress, when the women in the campus were always in denim pants and toppers accessorized with either a thick shawl, or a jacket to protect them from the chilly weather. She walked unhurriedly, her serious face looking down most of the time.
I was to learn not too long after that she was a person who was so willing to please. She would always give way for me to use the bathroom ahead of her, to wipe the spill on the floor, even if I caused the spill. She would easily share a bar of chocolate or a pack of peanuts, unmindful or in blissful ignorance that they could be causing the eruptions in her face. Very giving, I thought that she was the type who could be easily abused, victimized. I also found her prone to be jolly, though there was something about her laughter I found uncommon as she laughed jerkily at things and events which I would hardly think funny. She wanted to be nice to people, to do them a good deed, but primarily, I think she wanted to be known as a woman of God.
FOR ROOMMATES, we were rarely together. She had her schedule and I had mine. Her day classes to my night classes. We had common off days, but for some reasons we rarely had our meals together and never went anywhere together.
Till she invited me to her Bible Study class.
She was a Bible reader. She would start her day reading the Bible, still donned in her pajamas, her face still unwashed. She would be highlighting or copying passages in a notebook where she said she wrote down her everyday reflections, her analysis of the role of Jesus in her daily life, what she called His interventions, His intercessions. She would “lift up to Him” whatever problem had been bugging her for the day before she slept.
“We should seek the Bible for answers,” she said, “for all our struggles,” and she found herself most of the time in a state of constant struggle, on matters of choices to make, on answers to everyday questions she faced, for every pain and angst that she felt.
“That is what I do when I would find myself deeply stuck in a problem for which I cannot find any solution. I would open the Bible, and the answer would be there. Right there before my eyes…I leave everything to Jesus. He has an answer for my every need, for my every prayer, you know? Although sometimes it becomes quite a puzzle really, not knowing God’s will for us. But God has a will for us, has a plan for each one of us. And it is for us to find it, to discern it. And we will not be able to know it, unless we are able to discern. To discern.”
She began to give me bookmarkers with religious messages, signing them always with “Love and Light, Noemi.” A good news from me would always elicit a “Praise the Lord” from her.
On our second week in the dorm, she very casually asked me to join the Bible study class she was regularly attending. There was a new resident director, an American whom I might fancy. “He’s handsome,” she said coyly, her face blushing.
THE PAST WEEK, she had intermittently mentioned some problems at the department, some problems with her co-faculty, mostly women, who seemed to resent her a lot for, among others, being close to some students, for allowing them to spend time with her at the department, even taking her snacks with them.
“Is there anything wrong with that? I am only responding to their need for help. They are finding it so difficult to solve the chemistry problems. What is wrong with helping them?”
She sounded emotional, her eyes, as usual focusing at some vague direction. Then she said with conviction that they were just envious of her, because the students loved her and they were deprived of such love.
Also, she had alluded to someone, a male faculty it turned out to be, who had begun to make things difficult for her, hiding her chalk box, her pointer, her chair.
BUTCH, THE AMERICAN, the new staff director of the Campus Crusade for Christ in the region was an amiable attractive person whose lack of height I found to be a decisive minus factor. He must be in his early 30s, around my age. He made me receive Christ as my savior. I didn’t see any reason at all why I should not. Noemi felt that I became a convert and that Butch was my “spiritual parent.” I basked in the glow of warm company of a Singaporean couple Mui-ying and Hui-lin who took on to me, seeing me obviously as a long lost soul, very malleable and eager to spiritually evolve.
I began to attend the weekly Bible study sessions which were conducted by Mrs. Elizabeth Newbold, a senior staff member with a reputation for being a very good Bible teacher.
Once a week we would flock to the house on Quezon Hill, where she stayed with her husband. An elderly couple, they were very gracious and welcoming. For two hours, we would listen to Mrs. Newbold interpreting, paraphrasing the chosen verses for the night, her voice blending with the warm glow of the chandeliers in the living and dining room areas.
For the first time, or precisely because of that perhaps, I asked a lot of questions during
the sessions, which I felt might have sounded quite irreverent sometimes, short of undermining the faith, and I was ready to be declared an outcast each time, to be given the cold shoulder, to be ignored in subsequent sessions. But they were all exceedingly patient with my questions the answers to which I could not say I found to my satisfaction all the time.
A week later, Noemi was singing the matchmaker’s song. She said that Butch was attracted to me. And wasn’t I, too? Didn’t I think him attractive?
I smiled and frowned simultaneously. Somehow I couldn’t help feeling that she was attracted to the American. Subsequent nights would find us talking about him. She would analyze his every move, his every word, eternally curious and intrigued, and when we finally stopped and turned off the light, I would wonder at the wistful smile that would be lingering on her face.
FOUR WEEKS into the summer, we woke up one morning to find there was no water in the bathroom, nor in the kitchen sink. We were told that there was no water on all floors of the dorm. The water pipe down the road had burst the previous night.
My soiled clothes had accumulated, and I must have looked very problematic. But Noemi saw no problem at all. She cheerfully asked me to go to her old apartment somewhere on Pacdal road. She still had her things there, still had a key to the house which she shared with three other faculty in the College. She had opted to stay in the dorm this summer for a change; it was walking distance to the College, and she was saddled with so many things to do, laboratory researches, her church activities, etc. Also, she pointed out that there was a tacit understanding with her housemates that she would be looking for a new place come the first semester. She said though that she would have to look for new housemates, at least one or two people she could share the rent with. And maybe I would be interested?
Or I might know people who would be and maybe I could refer them to her?
We spent a whole afternoon washing our week-old soiled clothes, leaving it to dry in the clothesline at the back. Coming back for them the next day, I found two of my two pairs of Levi’s gone, one of them I had bought the last time I was in Manila and had worn it only a few times.
It was a puzzle how it could have gotten lost. It was the first time that it happened, she said. Seeing me grieve the loss of my expensive denims, Noemi tried hard to sincerely commiserate, even offering to pay half of the price of the lost items. Of course not, I said. I could not see how it could be her fault. Just bad luck, I thought.
She said again that it was the first time that something was stolen in the clothesline.
To my surprise, she had an immediate suspect and she sounded very definite about it. It could have been done by no other than one of her housemates. To spite her. Yes, the clothes were stolen to spite her. There were people who “disliked” her, who “coveted” her “happiness,” because even if she if she was “30ish and without a boy friend,” she did feel “happy and contented” and that was what the girls “envied and hated” her for. And they felt that because of her “commitment” to her faith.
To prove her point, she noted that the girl had gone down to Manila a day later. If she hadn’t done it, why did she go down to Manila so suddenly? She equated the two acts as related.
Dogmatic and preposterous as she sounded, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
It bothered me nevertheless. I was clueless and it surprised me that she never considered that an outsider could have taken it.
She had another story the following week. It involved a male co-faculty, from the same division, who she said had been “wanting” her this past year, although the guy never explicitly said anything.
I asked if she liked him and my question seemed to jolt her. She looked distant, ignoring it. Then, she said: “But he has gotten to be so mean, you know, saying so many things against me to the other faculty. And it’s because I have frustrated him. I have thwarted all his attempts to make me reciprocate his affections. And I cannot stand his meanness anymore. And you know what, this girl who stole your pants is actually mad about him, has been after him since I can remember. And that is why I am also the object of her hate. She stole it because she hated me so.”
The same guy, I realized whom she had mentioned a few weeks earlier as “giving her a difficult time.” Now, he was being so mean, even doing such ludicrous things as hiding her chalk box, her pointer, her chair.
(To be continued next issue.)